In the Digital Age, with so many other men’s work available at SermonAudio, blogs, ministry websites, etc., every preacher wrestles with using another man’s material. Augustine, in his fourth book on On Christian Doctrine, has some wisdom to offer us regarding this matter.
In his frankly titled Chapter 29, “It is permissible for a preacher to deliver to the people what has been written by a more eloquent man than himself,” we find the following words of wisdom. I have broken this chapter up into sections and added above them my own summary statements of the principles.
1) If your conscience will not allow you to use another man’s work, then do not do it.
If, however, he cannot do even this, let his life be such as shall not only secure a reward for himself, but afford an example to others; and let his manner of living be an eloquent sermon in itself.
2) If you do not know how to compose a text for a sermon, but have found someone who has done it well, then use it. Just be sure to give credit to the one you quote so as not to plagiarize.
There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception. For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed, and there are no divisions among them.
3) Do not let your conscience be troubled that using another’s sermon this way is stealing, for God’s Word belongs to all who obey it.
Nor are such men to be alarmed by the words of Jeremiah the prophet, through whom God denounces those who steal His words every one from his neighbour. For those who steal take what does not belong to them, but the word of God belongs to all who obey it; and it is the man who speaks well, but lives badly, who really takes the words that belong to another.
4) However, if you do use the words of another, be careful that your life preaches what the sermon is preaching.
For the good things he says seem to be the result of his own thought, and yet they have nothing in common with his manner of life. And so God has said that they steal His words who would appear good by speaking God’s words, but are in fact bad, as they follow their own ways. And if you look closely into the matter, it is not really themselves who say the good things they say. For how can they say in words what they deny in deeds? It is not for nothing that the apostle says of such men: “They profess that they know God, but in works they deny Him.” In one sense, then, they do say the things, and in another sense they do not say them; for both these statements must be true, both being made by Him who is the Truth. Speaking of such men, in one place He says, “Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; “that is to say, what ye hear from their lips, that do; what ye see in their lives, that do ye not;—”for they say and do not.” And so, though they do not, yet they say.
5) We may even “plunder the Egyptians” and use words from wicked men who speak truth, for all truth is God’s and belongs to His people.
But in another place, upbraiding such men, He says, “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things?” And from this it would appear that even what they say, when they say what is good, it is not themselves who say, for in will and in deed they deny what they say. Hence it happens that a wicked man who is eloquent may compose a discourse in which the truth is set forth to be delivered by a good man who is not eloquent; and when this takes place, the former draws from himself what does not belong to him, and the latter receives from another what really belongs to himself.
6) The most beautiful aspect of using the words of another is when they come from godly men and our life practice harmonizes with the truth.
But when true believers render this service to true believers, both parties speak what is their own, for God is theirs, to whom belongs all that they say; and even those who could not compose what they say make it their own by composing their lives in harmony with it.
Over the years of my preaching ministry, I have done such things as preached a Charles Spurgeon sermon for a Watch Night service; taken Edward’s Charity and Its Fruits and built a series of communion messages on his work; used Owen’s work on mortification extensively in a series on the Christian’s battle against sin; let Piper take me by the hand to preach on fasting; and on a few occasions used other men’s outlines for sermons. Each time I simply made the congregation aware of what I was doing, and found us all profiting from the practice.
However, after reviewing these works above, I must confess I am still working on the fourth and sixth principles.